PILOT schemes up and down the country, including locally in Newcastle are offering patients a novel way of seeing their doctor, where up to 15 persons with a specific condition book in to the same consultation slot with their GP.

This appointment typically lasts about 90 minutes during which the individual illness is addressed, with the longer time permitting discussion and management in greater depth.

While this has been met with horror from some quarters, and indeed a degree of negative reporting, the news is that on the whole, patients actually like the concept.

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) defines a Shared Medical Appointment (SMA), as “when multiple patients have an appointment at the same time, with a team of healthcare professionals representing different professions”.

In reality, this way of working is nothing new, and has been successfully implemented in both the US and Australia for over ten years, where it is now the standard of care in the management of chronic diseases, for example diabetes. Indeed in the UK, antenatal classes and rehabilitation following a heart attack have been provided in group sessions for many years. The there are several driving forces for this alternate method of consulting. Having group sessions for a single disease cuts down on repetition of the same advice multiple times. With patients facing greater waiting times to see a doctor, and at the present a shortage of medical professionals, especially GPs, this could also be a way of meeting the demand. The 90 minutes spent with 15 patients would only be enough to review nine patients, if they were all seen individually in a traditional ten minute allocation. The evidence behind SMAs being an effective way of working is strong, with figures showing that group sessions for mental health, diabetes and elderly care not only decrease waiting times for an appointment but also may reduce the number of emergency hospital admissions. With regards to the mechanics, individuals have to adhere to patient confidentiality at the start of each session, which hasn’t been shown to be an issue of concern. We also know that having a chronic disease can often be an isolating experience, and the group sessions can offer a degree of peer support for those living with a long term illness.

As Rachel Powers, chief executive of the Patients Association commented, “It could also be reassuring to patients to see others share their concerns and challenges”. It has been acknowledged that this isn’t a one size fits all solution, and indeed traditional ten minute single patient GP appointments will still be offered to everyone, with no pressure to engage in the groups even if you have a disease for which this way of consulting is offered. However it may be a way of getting a quicker appointment, having the luxury of a longer time slot with a doctor, as well as learning from experiences and gaining the support of others with the same condition.